Special thanks to Penny’s mother, Tammy Gouldsmith, for sharing this story.

Our daughter Penelope is one of the estimated 25-40% of autistic children who are considered minimally verbal, or nonspeaking. We turned to VIA’s Outpatient Behavioral Services when we needed help.

When the VIA team introduced the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) to Penny, she was eager to trade images of her favorite toys and snacks for the real thing. We saw a dramatic decrease in Penny’s frustration levels and anxiety as her ability to communicate grew.

After several months of success with PECS, we felt Penny was ready for a more robust communication system. VIA’s speech-language team shared their experience with various speech-generating devices and gave us the opportunity to trial a loaner device and software at home before we bought our own. They also helped us troubleshoot questions and settings thereafter.

Penny quickly recognized the familiar images from her PECS book, and spent the next several days pouring over the many new folders and images on her device as well. Soon she began to tell us what she wanted, label or describe objects in her environment, and answer basic questions.

Penny has had her device for just over a year now, and continues to surprise and delight us daily. She has recently started using the software’s keyboard to spell out the names of items she can’t find on her device, which has given us renewed hope that she’ll be able to learn to read in the future. She is assertive, observant, funny, and occasionally savage: on the first day of school this year, she told her bus driver she’d rather ride in a car!

Our daughter may never be able to speak, but VIA has given her a voice.


Watch Penny Ask for Cake Using PECS

Learn about VIA Services and Penny’s Progress

The VIA outpatient team worked with Penny from May of 2019 through September 2021:

  • Penny was nonverbal and able to use a Picture Exchange Communication System to exchange single pictures to request highly preferred items.
  • She transitioned to a speech-generating device which significantly increased her access to vocabulary.
  • Penny expanded her length of utterance from a single icon to 2-3 word sentences.
  • When she was discharged, Penny was a proficient communicator, able to request a large number of items, actions, and locations. She learned to expressively label pictures and items in her environment, began spontaneously commenting with her device, and was motivated to explore folders and build vocabulary knowledge.
  • Her communication absolutely exploded, and she was even beginning to use a few words vocally.

VIA staff couldn’t be prouder of Penny, and we’re so grateful to be part of her journey to effective communication.